"Does it worry you that you don't talk any kind of sense?"
Agda, the Restaurant at the end of the Universe
Every couple of months we get the opportunity to hold a discussion directly, on the record, with Communications Minister Stephen Conroy and the senior officials responsible for implementing the Government's mandatory net filter scheme. These opportunities come about as a result of the Senate Estimates Committee process which provides a valuable, if somewhat warped, window into the world of the Australian public service.
The sessions - on the net filter as much as any other topic - are an unpredictable blend of insight and calculated obfuscation. The May 2010 session was illuminating mainly for what it failed to illuminate: between them, the Minister and the official at the table managed to take no less than eleven matters on notice. This is sometimes shorthand for 'we may respond in several months with a dismissive one-line misrepresentation of what we thought you asked for', occasionally it simply means your question is about to disappear and never be heard from again.
The mandatory net filter is a project in trouble: it wont work; it poisons a constituency that the Government needs to win back in time for the 2010 election, and it is distracting attention away from the biggest of the Commonwealth's big ticket items: the $43 billion National Broadband network. Some of the reasons for its comprehensive unpopularity are detailed here.
We're two years in from the Rudd Government's regrettable re-interpretation of their election commitment on internet filtering - which most people believe has a place, as long as it's optional - and yet basic information about the operation of the filter still seems to elude those charged with its implementation. The list of questions taken on notice below indicates the depth of ambiguity that still clouds this proposal.
The following transcript is a journey into the opaque and completely surreal world of the net filter; let us know if you can make more sense of it than us.
Happy towel day, froods.
Questions taken on notice: watch this space.
1. Was there some kind of non-disclosure agreement entered into by participants in that [ISP] consultation or was that an open invite? Was it advertised on the department's website or was it done quietly?... My specific question is whether there was any sort of non-disclosure clause that people entered into?
2. Is it your intention or the minister's intention for that report to be made public?
3. I am just wondering whether there is a threshold or a certain amount of traffic that would qualify as high-traffic?
4. With the form of negotiations that you are undertaking, for example, with Google-just to bring them up again-who will be liable if these attempts to outsource the filter let material through that should otherwise be refused classification? [Harris: But, if your question to us is what the legal liability of Google is when it has a refused classification piece of content that remains on its site-regardless of whether it is a third party, first party, second party or any other party-we can provide you with advice on notice.]
5. Who are the third parties with whom you are negotiating to outsource the filtering task, the high-traffic providers?
6. Given the secrecy of the refused classification blacklist, given that we have had instances of it leaking last year, what penalties will apply for possession and/or dissemination of the list beyond its stated purposes?
7. I am asking when ISPs will be informed that the list has changed. Will that be in a real time, will it be when a new complaint comes through or will it be on a monthly cycle? What will it be?
8. Can you confirm for us that the investigation into the leaking of the blacklist last time has lapsed; has it not?
9. Can you tell me, or direct me to the AFP if you will, will some entities or agencies be exempt from the blacklist? I am thinking law enforcement agencies obviously, the parliament and research institutions; is there anybody who will not be behind the filter?
10. I wonder whether you have either sought advice or received advice from law enforcement agencies or whether you, the department, or anybody that you are aware of has done any research on whether law enforcement agencies will find it more difficult to do their jobs as a result of an increase in encrypted traffic as a result of the mandatory filter coming into effect?
11. If you come into Australia with a handset device that is capable of internet access and you are from overseas, will you be subject to the filter? Conversely, if you are an Australian travelling overseas with an Australian handset, will you be subject to the filter while you are travelling overseas?